I don’t call the place “The University of Memphis” and I don’t call it “Memphis State University” either. When people ask me where I went to college, I tell them I went to Memphis State.
“You mean the University of Memphis, don’t you?” someone tries to correct me.
“No,” I say. “I mean Memphis State.”
Sometimes, I catch flak for calling it Memphis State, but I don’t care. Some people hear me say, “Memphis State,” and take it upon themselves to scold me with some nonsense like,
“It’s not Memphis State anymore, it’s the University of Memphis.”
They almost yell it as if they believe that the lofty name – which in the beginning was mostly a marketing gimmick – puts the college on the same level with the University of Louisville, the University of Miami, or maybe even the University of Chicago, all of which are privately endowed.
The University of Chicago has one of the largest endowments in the world and has many Nobel Laureates on its faculty. But I don’t feel that having a large endowment, an exalted faculty, and exclusive admissions standards – accepting only those students with sterling grades and the highest scores on their entrance exams – makes the U of C better than Memphis State. Memphis State has given students the chance to go to college who otherwise wouldn’t have gone, and that’s worth something.
The students who go to Chicago can also go to Northwestern, or the University of Michigan, or maybe even Harvard, and most likely with ample scholarships too. The students who enter Memphis State don’t have those options. They go to the University of Memphis or they find a job.
I do my best not to laugh at the people who try to scold me for calling the place Memphis State, for I see that they’ve been suckered into believing all the hocus-pocus about the name (“brand” is a more accurate way to put it, and I don’t mean that in a good way either). Instead, I ask them why they think the name is so important, mostly because I’m curious about what they will say.
“How does the new name make the university better?” I ask, and follow that with: “And has the academic standing of the place gone up because of the new name?”
Other than the name change, the college hasn’t changed much since I was a student. Yes, there are some fancy new buildings, one of which is the new university center that is something like an amusement arcade with fast food restaurants, lounges, and game rooms. “It’s the university’s living room,” gushed its director in a promotional video.
The university also created a couple of new majors. The College of Business added Salesmanship or Sales Mastery or something having to do with hawking products and services to people who probably don’t need them. “Not even Harvard has one of those,” I heard somebody say.
And the university built a deluxe hotel where students can major in Hospitality – taking courses in changing sheets, cleaning the rooms, running the kitchen, and kowtowing to the customers (“clients,” I hear them called) trying to get them to spend more money.
Okay. I’m being petty, but do the new buildings and new majors – along with the new name – make the college any better academically than it was before? And are the students at the University of Memphis superior to the Memphis State students of the past?
Memphis State had good professors when I was there, and I’m sure good ones are teaching there now, but I can’t imagine that the professors today are better than those who taught me.
As I remember, a group of the boosters for the football and basketball teams dreamed up the idea for changing the name. They were sure that the new name would add class to the place and once and for all the university could get rid of the stigma of being a mere teachers college. If the college would drop “State” from its name – they believed – it would help the athletic director and the coaches beef up the schedules with top opponents and – most important – recruit blue-chip football and basketball players.
The powers-that-be agreed with the boosters about changing the name, but for different reasons. They imagined that the new name might put the place right up there with the University of Tennessee and maybe even Vanderbilt, if not Harvard.
Anticipating the official name change, a sportscaster at one of the local television stations started calling the athletic teams, “the UMem Tigers,” and referred to the college simply as “UMem,” which sounded idiotic and, thankfully, didn’t last. This was not the only stupidity about the new name, though.
One of the directors of the alumni association wrote a letter to the Commercial Appeal, stating that, “Changing the name to the University of Memphis will enhance the prestige of the athletic program. And let’s not forget that it will increase the value of the degrees held by the university’s graduates.”
The alumni office ran a promotion where graduates from the Memphis State era could get new diplomas embellished with the name “The University of Memphis” on them with a “donation” of a hundred dollars, and many alumni eagerly became donors.
In all of the excitement, nobody scrutinized the worthiness of the new name. Most everybody connected with the college embraced the name change enthusiastically. To be fair, though, they’re hardly the only people in the world to become dazzled by a glamorous name.
A rumor going around the campus was that the new library would be named in honor of the governor to help speed up the day when Memphis State would become the University of Memphis. In the mid-1990s, the people who’d been campaigning for the new name finally got their wish and a frenzy broke out in which signs and buildings all over campus were smeared with “The University of Memphis.” Engraved in stone on the front of the new library – named for Governor Ned Ray McWherter – are letters five feet tall, spelling “The University of Memphis,” for everyone to see.
The people in charge wanted it known that this was – as I heard some put it – an “urban university.” Well, the place is a university, and it’s in a city, so I guess you could call it an urban university, but why inflate it?
Regardless of the new name, the college is still in the same neighborhood where it’s always been and draws students whose test scores on the ACT are no higher than the scores students made in the past.
One name, however, still sticks to the place as much as it always has.
It’s really kind of funny when people call it that, for they unwittingly reveal more about themselves than they imagine. Typically, they’re disgruntled students trying to be cool. Or they’re students who went to high school in Memphis but had the wherewithal in both grades and money to go off to one of the big colleges, and by virtue of that, look down on the University of Memphis, which is stupid of them.
Many of these students end up leaving their famous colleges and universities, only to come back to Memphis, and sooner or later find themselves at Memphis State, bitter at their failure to make it at their big school, and blind to the opportunities the U of M offers them. You can spot these people around campus wearing the sweatshirts of their former universities, trying to remind everybody – especially themselves – that they had touched greatness, or thought they had. They’re here now, though – Tiger High or not.
Despite being a second tier college in the state education system (the University of Tennessee is the premier institution in both funding and renown) I struggled trying to pass my classes at Memphis State, but there were a lot of good things about being a student here. I hardly had a class with more than thirty students in it, and most of my classes had less than fifteen, and this was in the 1960s and 70s when college enrollment across the nation tripled due to the wave of baby-boomers reaching college age.
Being in small classes was good for me because the professors teaching those classes gave us lots of attention, and I’m sure I learned more in their small classes than I would have learned sitting in huge lecture halls at a big university.
Today – due to what some claim are “budget constraints” – even classes such as Freshman Composition have upwards of sixty students enrolled in them, and that’s a pity for the students, because not even the best teachers can help them in writing classes with that many students.
One-hundred years ago in what was then a rural neighborhood just east of Memphis, Seymour A. Mynders – who himself had been a teacher, a high school principal, and then Superintendent of Instruction for the state of Tennessee – founded the school, hiring professors he knew to be good teachers, who taught the students mathematics, biology, history, literature and writing, geography, physical education, and other subjects. The school had a decent music program too.
Mynders named his institution West Tennessee Normal School, an honest name that reflected the task of educating students to become teachers. During that era, many normal schools sprang up to prepare teachers for the growing public school systems throughout the nation. Florida State, Ball State, Kent State, North Texas State, San Jose State, the University of Southern Mississippi (“Southern Miss”), and others that today are universities were all founded as normal schools – just like the University of Memphis was.
Though West Tennessee Normal School wasn’t even called a college, the work the school expected from its students was as formidable as any of the big universities expected from theirs. Generations of American children were splendidly educated at public schools by teachers who graduated from places like Memphis State, which is a testament to the excellence of the normal schools.
A few decades after Mynders founded the school, its leaders wanted to enroll students other than those who aspired to be teachers, so they added courses in bookkeeping and accounting, office management, and business law, and this was the beginning of the College of Business.
Regardless of the name, from its beginning, more often than not, the quality of scholarship and instruction conducted at the college was and continues to be as good as what you find at the big universities.
Still, people tend to emphasize the fame of a university without considering the dedication and work of its students. Fame is nothing if the students aren’t committed to learning all they can. If their teachers lead them to ideas they never would’ve considered otherwise and inspire them to maintain good work, the fame of an institution, or lack of it, makes little difference.
My paternal grandmother – who attended the school in its earliest years – called it “Normal,” even in the 1960s when it hadn’t had that name in a long time. To my grandmother, it was always Normal, just like it will always be Memphis State to me.
It’s been a generation since Memphis State became the University of Memphis and though the students who attend the university today surely know that their school used to be named Memphis State, that name is part of the past now. For them, it’s the University of Memphis.
Mark Orr taught at Memphis State for three decades, and as a student, I was lucky to have studied with him. Mark taught Ancient History – the Greeks, the Romans, and Medieval Europe. Mark would sometimes say that, “Harvard is not always Harvard, and frequently Memphis State is more like Tiger High.” What he meant is that Harvard didn’t always live up to its name, and Memphis State would sometime slip from the ideals that its founder and those who followed set for the students here. What Mark inspired in each of us who studied with him was to work so that we would make Memphis State – each in our different ways – a college that for us would be as good as any in the world. Many other Memphis State professors did the same for their students too.
We all know students who slide through their courses – regardless of where they go to college – seeking only a degree and not really putting forth the effort to learn anything, and they can slide as easily at Harvard and other big universities as they can at the University of Memphis.
Call the place what you may – West Tennessee Normal School, Memphis State Teachers College, Memphis State University, the University of Memphis, or Tiger High – in the eyes of the world, we’re not a big name and our diplomas don’t open doors wide at all, so we can’t afford to slide through without learning what we need to know so that we might live well. A solid education is all we can get at the University of Memphis – but we can get that if we want it and are willing to study for it.
I learned a lot at Memphis State and it’s added more to my life than I ever imagined. Surely, I could have learned those things at other colleges, but I learned them here, and I know many others who went to Memphis State – now the University of Memphis – who will tell you the same thing.